These Happy Golden Years (Chaprer 21)

These Happy Golden Years

Laura Ingalls Wilder

Chapter 21
Barnum and Skip

June was gone, and Laura’s school was out. The organ was paid for. Laura learned to play a few chords with Pa’s fiddle, but she would rather listen to the fiddle alone, and after all, the organ was for Mary’s enjoyment when Mary came home.

One evening Pa said, “Tomorrow’s Fourth of July. Do you girls want to go to the celebration in town?”

“Oh no, let’s have it as it was last year,” Carrie said. “I don’t want to be in a crowd where they shoot off firecrackers. I’d rather have our own firecrackers at home.”

“I want lots of candy at home,” Grace put in her vote.

“I suppose Wilder will be around with that team and buggy, Laura?” Pa asked.

“He didn’t say anything about it,” Laura answered. “But I don’t want to go to the celebration, anyway.”

“Is this unanimous, Caroline?” Pa wanted to know.

“Why, yes, if you agree with the girls,” Ma smiled at them all. “I will plan a celebration dinner, and the girls will help me cook it.”

All the next morning they were very busy. They baked fresh bread, a pieplant pie, and a two-egg cake. Laura went to the garden, and with her fingers dug carefully into the hills of potatoes to find new potatoes. She gathered enough potatoes for dinner, without injuring one plant by disturbing its roots. Then she picked the first of the green peas, carefully choosing only the plump pods.

Ma finished frying a spring chicken while the new potatoes and the peas were cooked and given a cream dressing. The Fourth of July dinner was just ready, all but steeping the tea, when Pa came home from town. He brought lemons for afternoon lemonade, firecrackers for the evening, and candy for all the time after dinner.

As he gave the packages to Ma, he said to Laura, “I saw Almanzo Wilder in town. He and Cap Garland were hitching up a new team he’s got. That young fellow missed his vocation; he ought to be a lion tamer. Those horses are wilder than hawks. It was all he and Cap could do to handle them. He said to tell you if you want to go for a buggy ride this afternoon, be ready to climb in when he drives up, for he won’t be able to get out to help you. Said to tell you, there’s another team to break.”

“I do believe he wants to break your neck!” said Ma. “And I hope he breaks his own, first.”

This was so unlike Ma’s gentle self that they all stared at her.

“Wilder will manage the horses, Caroline. Don’t worry,” Pa said confidently. “If ever I saw a born horseman, he’s one.”

“Do you really not want me to go, Ma?” Laura asked.

“You must use your own judgment, Laura,” Ma replied. “Your Pa says it is safe, so it must be.”

After they had slowly enjoyed that delicious dinner, Ma told Laura to leave the dishes and go put on her poplin if she intended to go driving. “I’ll do up the work,” Ma said.

“But you have worked all morning,” Laura objected. “I can do it and still have time to dress.”

“Neither of you need bother about the dishes,” Carrie spoke up. “I’ll wash, and Grace will wipe. Come on, Grace. You and I are older than Mary and Laura were when they did the work.”

So Laura was ready and waiting at the door when Almanzo came. She had never seen the horses before. One was a tall bay, with black mane and tail. The other was a large brown horse, spotted with white. On one side of his brown neck a white spot resembled a rooster. A streak of white in the brown mane looked like the rooster’s tail.

Almanzo stopped this strange team and Laura went toward the buggy, but the brown horse reared straight up on his hind legs, with front feet pawing the air, while the bay horse jumped ahead. Almanzo loosened the reins and as the horses sprang away he called, “I’ll be back.”

Laura waited while he drove around the house. When he stopped the horses again, she went quickly to the buggy, but stepped back as again the spotted horse reared and the bay jumped.

Pa and Ma were beside Laura; Carrie stood in the doorway clutching a dish towel, and Grace looked out beside her. They all waited while Almanzo drove around the house again.

Ma said, “You’d better not to try to go, Laura,” but Pa told her, “Caroline, she will be all right. Wilder will handle them.”

This time as Almanzo stopped the horses he turned them a little, cramping the buggy to give Laura a better chance to get between the wheels. “Quick,” he said.

Hoops and all, Laura moved quickly. Her right hand grasped the folded-down braces of the buggy top, her right foot touched the buggy step, and as the spotted horse reared and the bay horse leaped, her left foot stepped into the buggy and she dropped into the seat. “Drat these hoops!” she muttered, while she settled them inside the speeding buggy, and covered her brown poplin with the dust robe.

“Don’t touch the buggy top!” Almanzo said, and then they were silent. He was fully occupied in keeping control of the horses, and Laura made herself small on her side of the seat to keep out of the way of his straining arms as he tried to pull the horses down out of their run. They went north because they were headed that way. As they streaked through town Laura caught a glimpse of a thickly scrambling crowd getting out of the way, and Cap Garland’s grin as he waved his hand to her.

Later she thought with satisfaction that she had sewed the ribbon ties to her poke bonnet herself; she was sure the stitches would not give way.

The horses settled to a fast trot, and Almanzo remarked. “They said you wouldn’t go, and Cap said you would.”

“Did he bet I would?” Laura asked.

“I didn’t, if that’s what you want to know,” Almanzo answered. “I wouldn’t bet about a lady. Anyway, I wasn’t sure how you’d like this circus I’m driving.”

“What became of the colts?” Laura inquired.

“I sold them.”

“But Prince and Lady…” Laura hesitated. “I am not criticizing these horses, I just wondered if anything is wrong with Prince and Lady.”

“Nothing is wrong. Lady has a colt and Prince doesn’t drive so well without Lady. I had an offer of three hundred dollars for the colts, they’re a well-matched, well-broken team and worth it, but you can’t be sure of a fair price every day. This team cost me only two hundred, That’s

That’s a clear gain of a hundred dollars, and I figure I can sell these for more than they cost me, if I want to, when they’re broken. I think it will be fun to break them, don’t you?”

“Oh, yes!” Laura answered. “We will teach them to be gentle.”

“That’s what I figured. By the way, the spotted one’s named Barnum, and the bay is Skip. We won’t go by the picnic grounds; the firecrackers would make them wild again,” Almanzo said.

The horses went on mile after mile at a swift trot on the road across the open prairie. Rain had fallen the night before and water stood in pools wherever the road dipped, but Barnum and Skip refused to get their feet wet. They jumped across every puddle, taking the buggy flying over it with them and not a spatter fell on Laura’s poke bonnet.

The Fourth of July sun was hot, and Laura wondered why Almanzo did not suggest raising the buggy top until he said, “I’m sorry, but if we raised the top these horses would be frantic. I don’t know if I could hold them. Cap and I together couldn’t hitch them to the buggy till we put the top down.”

So they rode in the sunshine with the prairie wind blowing and white clouds sailing the blue sky overhead. They drove to Spirit Lake, around the end of it and beyond; then by different roads they went home again.

“We have driven sixty miles,” Almanzo said as they neared the house. “I think the horses will stand to let you out. I daren’t get out to help you, for fear they would leave me.”

“I can get out myself,” Laura said. “Don’t let the horses get away. But won’t you stay to supper?”

“I’d like to, but I must get the horses back to town before I stop them, so Cap can help me unhitch. Here we are. Don’t jiggle the buggy top as you step down between the wheels.”

Laura tried not to, but she did jar it a little; Barnum reared, Skip leaped, and they dashed away.

When Almanzo came next Sunday, Laura knew what to expect. She was quick to spring into the buggy the first time the horses stopped.

They were headed east, and they ran that way. After a while they went more quietly, and Almanzo drove them by a roundabout way to the twin lakes. Rapidly, but without rearing or plunging, they passed over the narrow road between the lakes, and on the homeward road they trotted.

“I have been driving them some this week, and I guess they are beginning to get the idea that they might as well behave,” Almanzo remarked.

“But they are not as much fun when they behave,” Laura complained.

“You think not? Well, then let’s teach them what a buggy top is for. Catch hold!”

Barely in time to do her part, Laura caught the front brace at her side of the buggy top and lifted it as Almanzo lifted his side. Quickly she pressed back on the hinge in its middle, straightening and clamping it as Almanzo did. The top was up and held firmly in place, just in the nick of time.

Skip sprang, and Laura caught her breath as Barnum reared. Up and up he went, forefeet pawing the air higher still, and his huge back rising in front of the dashboard. Nearer it came and nearer, in one more instant it would topple backward upon the buggy. Then with a great leap Barnum came down, far ahead, running with Skip. The buggy top swayed with the swiftness of its going and fear of it increased their speed.

Almanzo’s arms were rigid as he held the reins that were taut and straight as wires. Laura shrank back in her corner of the seat, held her breath and hoped they would not break.

At last the horses tired, and slowed to a trot. Almanzo drew a deep breath and relaxed a little. “Was that better?” he smiled at Laura.

Laura laughed shakily. “Much better, so long as the harness holds together,” she said.

“The harness will hold. I had it made to order at Schaub’s harness shop. Every strap is sound leather and it’s double-riveted and wax-sewed. In time these horses will learn the difference between running and running away,” he said confidently. “They were runaways, you know.”

“Were they?” said Laura, and her laugh was still a little shaky.

“Yes, that’s why I got them so cheap. They can run, but they can’t run away from us. After a while they’ll learn that they can’t, and they’ll stop trying and be a good team.”

“The buggy top is still up, and still scaring them. How will we ever get it down?” Laura wanted to know.

“We don’t need to put it down. Just be careful not to shake it when you’re getting out, and I’ll leave it up.”

The dangerous instant, in getting in or out of the buggy, was the instant that she was between the wheels. She had to be quicker than the horses, and go between the wheels without being caught.

When Almanzo stopped the horses at her door, very carefully Laura stooped under the buggy top’s braces without touching them, and quickly she got to the ground. Her skirts swooshed as she went, and the horses jumped and were gone.

She was surprised that her knees felt weak as she went into the house. Pa turned to look at her.

“Safely home again,” he said.

“There isn’t a bit of danger,” Laura told him.

No, of course not, but just the same I shall feel better when those horses are quieter. I suppose you’re going again next Sunday?”

“I think so,” Laura answered.

Next Sunday the horses were much quieter. They stood while Laura got into the buggy. Then quickly they started and trotted swiftly away. Almanzo drove them through town and northward. As the miles slipped behind them, their shining coats became dark with sweat.

Almanzo gently tried to pull them back to a walk. “Better slow down, boys, you’ll be cooler if you do,” he told them, but they refused to slacken their speed. “Oh, well, if you want to go, it won’t hurt you,” he added.

“It is terribly warm,” Laura said, raising the bangs from her forehead to let the wind blow underneath them. The heat of the sun was intense and strangely smothering.

“We can raise the top,” Almanzo said, but doubtfully.

“Oh, no, let’s don’t!” Laura objected. “The poor things are warm enough, without running away… without running,” she corrected herself.

“It is pretty warm to excite them so much,” Almanzo agreed. “It might not hurt them, but I’d rather not risk it, if you don’t mind the sun.”

As time passed the horses trotted more slowly. Still they would not walk, but trotted onward steadily until Laura suggested turning homeward earlier than usual because of the weather signs.

The wind came in short, hot puffs from every direction, and thunderclouds were in the west. Almanzo agreed, “It does look like rain.”

Turned toward home, the horses trotted more swiftly, but it was a long way to go. Ghostly whirlwinds sped invisible over the prairie, twisting the grass in small circles as they went, as if unseen fingers were stirring it.

“Dust devils,” Almanzo remarked, “only there is no dust, nothing but grass. They say they’re a sure sign of cyclone weather.”

The thunderheads piled up in the west; the whole sky looked stormy. The sun was shooting angry red beams of light across the dark clouds when Laura came home. Almanzo hurried away to reach his claim and make things snug there before the rain fell.

But the storm held off. Night came, black and oppressive, with still no rain, and Laura slept uneasily. Suddenly she woke in a glare of light; Ma stood by the bedside, holding a lamp. She shook Laura’s shoulder. “Quick, Laura!” she said. “Get up and help Carrie get her clothes, and come! Pa says there’s a bad storm coming.”

Laura and Carrie snatched up their clothes and followed Ma, who had snatched up Grace and her clothes and a blanket and was hurrying to the open trapdoor of the cellar.

“Go down, girls, quickly. Hurry,” she told them. They tumbled hastily down into the small cellar under the kitchen.

“Where is Pa?” Laura asked.

Ma blew out the lamp. “He is outdoors, watching the cloud. He can get here quickly, now that we are all down out of his way.”

“Why did you blow out the lamp, Ma?” Grace almost whimpered.

“Get into your clothes as well as you can, girls,” Ma said. “We don’t want the lamp, Grace; we don’t want any risk of fire.”

They could hear the roaring of wind, and a strange wild note was in it. Flashes of lightning glared into the darkness. The kitchen overhead was brighter than fire for an instant, then the dark was blacker and seemed to press on the eyeballs.

Ma dressed Grace, while Laura and Carrie somehow got into their clothes. Then they all sat on the earth floor, with their backs against the earth wall, and waited.

Laura knew they were safer in the cellar, but she could hardly bear the closed-in, underground feeling of it. She wanted to be out in the wind with Pa, watching the storm. The wind roared. The lightning slapped her open eyes with glare and darkness. Overhead in the kitchen the clock, pathetically ignorant of the storm, struck one.

It seemed a long time before Pa’s voice came down through the darkness. “You may come up now, Caroline. The storm passed west of us, between here and the Wessington Hills.”

“Oh, Pa, it wasn’t near enough to get the Reverend Brown’s, was it?” Laura asked.

“No. I doubt if this house would have stood if it had come that near,” Pa answered.

Cramped and chilled from sitting so long uncomfortably in the cold cellar, they all crawled wearily into their beds.

All through August the weather was hot, and there were many thunderstorms. Several times Ma roused Laura and Carrie in the night, to go down cellar with her and Grace while Pa watched the storm clouds. The wind blew with terrific force, but it was always a straight wind; and the worst of it passed to the west.

Frightened as she was in these terrifying nights, Laura felt a strange delight in the wild strength of the wind, the terrible beauty of the lightning and the crashes of thunder.

But in the morning they were all tired and heavy-eyed. Pa said, “It seems we have to have about so many electric storms. If we don’t get them in blizzards in the wintertime, we get them in cyclones and thunderstorms in the summer.”

“We can’t do anything about it, so we must take them as they come,” said Ma.

Pa rose from the table, and stretched as he yawned. “Well I can make up my sleep when the cyclone season is over. Right now I have to cut the oats,” and he went out to his work.

He was cutting the oats and wheat again with the old cradle. A harvester cost more money than he had, and he would not go in debt for one.

“This giving a mortgage on everything he owns, to buy a two-hundred-dollar machine, and paying ten per cent interest on the debt, will ruin a man,” he said. “Let these brash young fellows go in debt for machinery and break up all their land. I’m going to let the grass keep on growing, and raise cattle.”

Since he had sold Ellen’s big calf to send Mary to college, he had bought another cow. Ellen’s little calf had grown up, other calves had grown up, until now he had six cows and heifers, besides this year’s calves, so he needed a great deal of grass and hay.

On the last Sunday in August, Almanzo came driving Barnum single. Barnum reared, but Laura was quick, and when his feet touched the ground again she was safely in the buggy seat.

When Barnum had almost reached town and had settled to a trot, Almanzo explained. “I want to break him to drive single. He is so large and strong and such a good-looker that he will be worth more as a single driver than in a team. He must get over this way of starting, though.”

“He is a beauty,” Laura agreed, “and I believe he is really gentle. Let me drive him; I would like to see if I could.”

Almanzo seemed doubtful, but he gave her the lines. “Keep a tight rein on him,” he said. “Don’t let him get the start of you.”

Laura had not realized before how very small her hands were. They looked and felt tiny, holding those leather lines, but she was strong. She drove around the corner by the livery barn and all the way up Main Street, Barnum trotting as fast as he could.

“Did you see them turn and stare?” said Almanzo. “They never expected to see a woman driving that horse.”

Laura saw nothing but Barnum. Across the railroad tracks and on through Poverty Flat, the new part of town, she drove. But her arms were growing tired, and a little way out of town she gave the lines back to Almanzo.

“When my arms are rested, I want to drive again,” she told him.

“You may,” he promised. “You may drive all you want to. It gives my arms a rest, too.”

The next time she took the lines they felt alive. Through them she got the feel of Barnum’s mouth. A kind of thrill came up the lines to her hands. “I do believe Barnum knows I’m driving,” she said in surprise.

“Of course he does. He doesn’t pull so hard, either. Watch him!” Almanzo took the lines. At once they grew tauter and seemed almost to stretch.

“He leans on the bit, with me,” Almanzo said. Abruptly he changed the subject, “Do you know your old schoolteacher, Clewett, is going to start a singing school?”

Laura had not heard this. Almanzo said, “I’d like to have you go with me, if you will.”

“I would like to, very much,” she answered.

“All right, next Friday night. I’ll come for you at seven.” Almanzo went on, “He’s got to learn to walk. He’s never been known to walk yet when he was hitched up. Seems to think that if he can keep on going fast enough he can get away from the buggy.”

“Let me take him again,” Laura said. She loved the feel of Barnum’s mouth coming to her hands through the lines. It was true that he did not pull so hard when she was driving him. “He is really gentle,” she said again, though she knew that he had always been a runaway.

All that afternoon she took turns with Almanzo, driving, and before he stopped to let her get out at home, he reminded her, “Friday night, at seven. I’ll be driving Barnum single, and he may act up, so be ready.”

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